Ritual Sins(4)

By: Anne Stuart

“We aren’t a religion, we’re a philosophy. And children aren’t allowed here. They’re too young to understand our teachings. Luke says we must take care of our worldly responsibilities before we nurture ourselves.”

“A cult leader with a republican conscience,” Rachel muttered. “What next?”

“It’s not a cult.”

“Yeah, I know. Not a religion, not a cult, just a way of life,” Rachel said, tossing herself down on the bed. It was narrow and hard, like a bed of nails. It suited her mood.

“Dinner will be at six o’clock. We’re all vegans here, but our cooks are very skillful. I know you won’t mind.”

The only thing worse than a vegetarian diet was its stricter form, vegan. Rachel sighed. “It’ll be fine. I don’t really care much about food. In the meantime I think I’ll take a little rest.”

“Perfect,” Leaf said. “I’ll come back for you at suppertime.”

Rachel lay very still on the bed, listening as Leaf’s sandaled feet disappeared into the thick silence. She’d left the damn uniform behind, and Rachel stared at it, wondering if she had the energy and the anger to dump it in the trash. She didn’t.

She looked at the wood-paneled ceiling overhead. She’d done her research well—this facility was less than four years old, built with the best that money could buy. It was worth millions, all thanks to the spiritual leadership of a man who’d spent three years in prison for killing a man during a barroom brawl.

Luke Bardell had risen far and fast in the twelve years since he’d walked out of Joliet Prison on parole for manslaughter. And now no one could touch him, no one would even dare try, including the parole board who should have thrown him back in jail for violating the rules of his parole long ago.

No one would dare try to touch him, but Rachel Connery. And she was going to bring him down.

As soon as she found out who her ally was. Who had sent that warning letter.

She’d worn high heels as a stupid little act of defiance. She wasn’t going to go exploring in them, she wasn’t going to put on those damnable sandals that Leaf had left behind either, even though they looked like they might fit. She would go in her stocking feet, roaming the empty halls of Santa Dolores, and see whether she could come across the elusive Luke Bardell. She wasn’t going to await his summons for a papal audience. She was going to find him, now. And remind herself just how human he was.

She should have known it would be a waste of time. She passed a good half dozen of the brainwashed—people who looked a her and smiled and murmured some crap about “blessings.” But Luke Bardell was nowhere to be found. No one stopped her from going into any room, including the large, stark room that looked designed for large meetings or human sacrifices. But there was no sign of their mysterious, illustrious “master.” And no sign of anyone who seemed to know or care who she was.

By the time she gave up and headed back for her room her mood had not improved. She was hungry, she was hot and tired, and whether she liked it or not she was going to change out of her city clothes into something more comfortable. She wasn’t certain that she’d brought anything suitable, and she’d go around stark naked before she’d dress up like the karate kid, but a shower would revive her for her quest. A quest she had no intention of failing.

It was late afternoon, and her room was filled with shadows when she reached it. There was no light switch on the wall, and she cursed beneath her breath as she stumbled into the gloom, the door swinging shut behind her, sealing her in.

“Goddamn place,” she muttered. “No goddamn light switches, no goddamn meat, no goddamn messiah when you go looking for him.” She flailed around for a lamp on the bedside table. She found one, only to discover that it was an oil lamp.

“Shit,” she said out loud. “And no goddamn electricity.”

The flare of the match was dazzling in the inky darkness, and Rachel uttered a little shriek, mesmerized by the light as it traveled toward a lamp. A moment later a dim illumination filled the room, growing brighter by the moment, and the man shook the match out and tossed it in the round stucco fireplace.